The role of cranial neural crest cells in the formation of visceral arch musculature was investigated in the Mexican axolotl, Ambystoma mexicanum. DiI (1,1′-dioctadecyl-3,3,3′,3′-tetramethylindocarbocyanine, perchlorate) labeling and green fluorescent protein (GFP) mRNA injections combined with unilateral transplantations of neural folds showed that neural crest cells contribute to the connective tissues but not the myofibers of developing visceral arch muscles in the mandibular, hyoid, and branchial arches. Extirpations of individual cranial neural crest streams demonstrated that neural crest cells are necessary for correct morphogenesis of visceral arch muscles. These do, however, initially develop in their proper positions also in the absence of cranial neural crest. Visceral arch muscles forming in the absence of neural crest cells start to differentiate at their origins but fail to extend toward their insertions and may have a frayed appearance. Our data indicate that visceral arch muscle positioning is controlled by factors that do not have a neural crest origin. We suggest that the cranial neural crest-derived connective tissues provide directional guidance important for the proper extension of the cranial muscles and the subsequent attachment to the insertion on the correct cartilage. In a comparative context, our data from the Mexican axolotl support the view that the cranial neural crest plays a fundamental role in the development of not only the skeleton of the vertebrate head but also in the morphogenesis of the cranial muscles and that this might be a primitive feature of cranial development in vertebrates. Developmental Dynamics 231:237–247, 2004 © 2004 Wiley-Liss, Inc.